Johannesburg – The debate around whether South Africa is ready for a four-day work week is gaining momentum as more businesses sign up for the pilot, due to kick off in February 2023. But not all the experts agree that this could work in South Africa.
The project is the brainchild of the Stellenbosch University (SU) Business School’s director, Professor Mark Smith, who said the five-day work week was a made-up rule after the Industrial Revolution and the pilot would present many opportunities to work differently.
“In some countries, citizens work for 35, 37 and 39 hours. South Africa is much the same as anywhere else. But I don’t want people to see this as some kind of magic bullet. Work will become more intense. You will have fewer spaces in your work day.”
Smith said the four-day work week was already working well in the UK and Europe and was showing that people are more effective.
IQbusiness, South Africa’s largest management and technology consulting firm, last week took the lead in announcing its participation in the pioneer pilot.
Other forward-thinking companies which joined the trial include full service market research and insights consultancy KLA; web design and development company Big Beard Web Solutions; business change makers Semco Style Institute South Africa; career strategist Licia Dewing; and cloud-based financial solutions provider Valuesmart Business Solutions.
3Verse become the first advertising agency to take the leap along with digital marketing agency, Social Happiness.
Director of the 4-Day Week SA, Karen Lowe, said smaller companies and those in the professional services sector were generally the early triallists because it was easier for them to make big changes.
“We are here to help all sizes of company across different industry sectors and take a carefully imagined approach to adopting this new way of working. We are actively recruiting for the second pilot – providing further opportunity for organisations wanting to be part of this groundbreaking workplace experiment,” she said.
The UK trial is now midway through and companies said they had seen no loss of productivity during the experiment and and in some cases had seen a significant improvement. Positive results from trials run in Ireland and the US are expected to be released at the end of November.
Professor Dieter von Fintel, from the Department of Economics at SU, said he believed only high-end service sector companies who employed professional workers would opt in.
“I think we should watch carefully which companies will end up signing up voluntarily for the pilot. It will be telling how effective this will be in an economy like ours, and whether we can import this developed country concept into our own labour market context. These are typically the kind of workers who may be able to squeeze 100% of the work into 80% of the time because they rely on technology, and because their work does not require them to be present.”
Von Fintel said he had strong doubts whether many major employers would take part.
“A security guard, a petrol attendant, a retail worker and a bus driver cannot rearrange their work hours to do the same in less time – they must be available for all opening times and must work according to inflexible timetables. Some of these workers have to be on the job even when they are not actively doing a work activity.
“It is my opinion that it is infeasible for the majority of employees to work fewer hours and get the same outputs, and that the four-day work week is only suited to a small group of highly skilled workers. In other words, I don't believe it is broadly suited to the structure of our labour market,” he said.
Von Fintel added that even among the skilled workforce, the four-day work week was likely to introduce co-ordination problems.
“Imagine that one worker works Monday to Thursday, and another Tuesday to Friday. They only overlap on three days in a week. But if their jobs depended on interactions between these workers, there would be inevitable delays.
“In summary, the adjustments to the four-day work week are probably not possible for workers with inflexible schedules and whose job requires presence, and for firms with more flexibility, there will nevertheless be new co-ordination problems.
“It will be interesting to see who the selected firms are who even dare to try this out – they are likely to be limited to firms who employ highly skilled workers. I don’t think the four-day work week is universally applicable to all workers,” he said.
IQbusiness CEO Adam Craker said: “Trialling the four-day week, and the data behind it, is something every leader needs to seriously consider in their business. A reduction in working hours has been proven to increase business productivity, improve employee health outcomes, while working towards building a more sustainable working environment.
“This offers people the time and solitude to simultaneously build stronger families and communities while remaining fulfilled and successful at work.”